Young artist's image atop new Caldecott Tunnel

Young artist's image atop new Caldecott Tunnel

Michele Ellson

Ellina Bartholomew Couts with the casting featuring her winning drawing, which was installed on the Caldecott Tunnel's new fourth bore. Photo courtesy of Thomas-Bartholomew-Couts.

Ellina Bartholomew Couts is constantly creating – doodles in her schoolbooks, drawings, earrings made out of plants.

“There isn’t a day I don’t do art,” she said. “Art is 99 percent of me.”

While friends and family members have long been aware of her artistic prowess, the 11-year-old’s work is now finding a much wider audience: Ellina was one of six young artists whose drawings were cast into medallions that grace the new fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel.

“It’s special because her grandchildren will get to see it,” her father, Thomas, said during an interview about the honor.

Ellina said she and her mother, Marianne, often look online for contests to showcase Ellina’s art. She said she learned about the Caldecott competition last year from her then-fifth grade teacher at Otis Elementary, Charles Sullivan.

While the middle schooler’s art and fiction have been inspired by more modern work like the Harry Potter novels, Ellina didn’t know anything about art deco style, which predates her by about three-quarters of a century. So she and her mother researched it online, she said. After the research was done she began drawing.

“For about a month, we witnessed letter-sized pages with squiggles and lines all over the house, a variation of her usual behavior, but with a distinct focus,” said Marianne Bartholomew-Couts, an administrator at the University at California, Berkeley.

Ellina ultimately combined several drafts into her winning design – the tunnel’s four bores with a rolling hill and blazing sun in the backdrop. It was installed on the West Portal of the new tunnel.

“The Caldecott Tunnels are separate but united. The sun represents rebirth because the sun visits the Earth and the tunnels each day,” she wrote on the contest form, which urges entrants to “Be Creative!”

This past summer, the family received a phone call letting them know that Ellina’s design had been selected to grace the new tunnel, which connects Oakland to Orinda by way of the Berkeley Hills. She was one of six girls – three from the Alameda County side of the tube, and three from the Contra Costa side – to be picked from more than 300 entries.

For her winning design, Ellina was honored by the Alameda County Transportation Commission, in December 2012, and she and the other winning artists were invited this past summer to see the glass-fiber-and-concrete medallions created from their designs pulled from their rubber molds.

The concrete cast was a bit of a departure from the design Ellina submitted, she said – the tunnels are three-dimensional on the inside instead of the outside, and the sun’s heat is represented with squiggly lines.

“I wouldn’t have done that. I would have kept them to a point,” she said.

While she may have strong opinions about the design, press-shy Ellina is still sorting out her feelings about the monumental win.

“I do and I don’t like being recognized for it,” she said. “Is it actually possible that this happened? Or is it all a dream?”

Dad Thomas, a photographer, animator and high school teacher, said Ellina’s pride in her accomplishment did surface at a November 15 ceremony marking the opening of the new fourth bore. Her design was used for the lapel pin handed out to the dignitaries who attended the event and for the sticker adorning swag bags that included coasters showcasing the designs and a chocolate replica of the new tunnel.

“The minute she realized it was her design, and they didn’t do all the medallions, it was like, wow. That made her feel special,” Thomas Bartholomew-Couts said.

He said Ellina is ready to show off her artistic skills in other venues.

“She’s pretty proud, we’re certainly proud of her. She’s like, ‘What’s next?’” he said.

Slideshow photos courtesy of Thomas Bartholomew-Couts.